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Three of ASU's five NCAA qualifiers win Pac-12 titles, team finishes second

Josh Shields and Zahid Valencia each racked up their third consecutive Pac-12 titles


ASU redshirt junior Zahid Valencia celebrates his match win at the Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Arizona, on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.

Despite finishing second as a team, five ASU wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Tournament later this month, with three winning conference titles in Saturday's 2019 Pac-12 Wrestling Championships in Tempe.

Among the winners were redshirt juniors Josh Shields (165 pounds) and Zahid Valencia (174 pounds). This is the third straight win for both wrestlers, a feat which hasn't been accomplished since Anthony Robles won from 2009 to 2011.

Head coach Zeke Jones accomplished this himself as an ASU wrestler about 30 years ago. 

"To us, it's just Josh and Zahid," he said. "When you start to look back at the history of a lot of really good wrestlers in our program, and very few to ever do it, we're witnessing history right now."

Valencia, who was named Most Outstanding Wrestler, is looking to defend his NCAA Championship from a year ago. He came out aggressive in the final match, earning a 19-4 tech fall victory. 

"We had a really close team race so I was trying to score as many points, try to get a pin, but I ended up with a tech (fall) so I was fine," Valencia said.

Graduate student and sixth-year wrestler Christian Pagdilao secured his second Pac-12 title as he performed at Wells Fargo Arena for the final time.

"I really just wanted to come out here with a lot of confidence, and I think I did that for the most part," he said. "I wanted to really put in some momentum going into the NCAA Tournament. It was a really big blessing for me to be able to do this in front of the home crowd and also for myself and my family."

These Pac-12 champions will be joined in Pittsburgh by redshirt senior Ryan Millhof (125 pounds) and redshirt junior Josh Maruca (149 pounds), who both earned second place finishes in their respective weight classes Saturday.

Of the ASU wrestlers that failed to qualify for the Championships, three finished in fourth place. Redshirt senior Austyn Harris and redshirt freshman Brady Daniel each finished third at 197 and heavyweight, respectively, after losses in their NCAA allocation matches.

Overall, Jones would liked to have seen a more complete team effort, even saying some guys "wrestled scared." ASU's 79.5 points earned it a runner-up spot, which snapped ASU's run of two straight Pac-12 titles.

"It's a bummer," he said. "We wanted to win and we didn't. It's a game of inches, couple points, one match. You can pick it all a part. When it gets tough, you have to fight for it."

With NCAA Championships in sight, the Sun Devils are seeking to improve on last season's tenth place finish. Individually, Jones is confident that ASU can have multiple guys on the podium.

"We think Josh Shields can win it," Jones said. "I think Zahid can show the two losses this year can be turned around."

Valencia said he is using last year's NCAA Tournament experience to overcome those losses this year. He added that health is a key factor for ASU this time of year and that the team has to "keep pushing."

Stanford took home the hardware Saturday, edging the Sun Devils by two points with 81.5 on the day. Oregon State placed third with 77.5 points and CSU Bakersfield came in fourth with 49.5 points, while Cal Poly scored 15. 

The NCAA Tournament will run from March 21 to 23 at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. 

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